In the wee hours of Christmas morning, after we’ve opened all the gifts and thrown out the wrapping paper, as my relatives gently slumber, I confront the curse of Christmas present.
I’m lying in my old bed in the upstairs room of my parents’ home. My wife breathes softly at my side, comfortably dreaming of the cool gifts she received and, perhaps, of the warmth of family and the feast to come.
I’m tied in knots, trying to figure out what to do with that all-in-one handyman set from Uncle Buck, the poly-blend, black-with-orange-stripes tube socks from Aunt Agnes. Wide awake, I cope with grim reality. I’m stuck with them.
Unwanted, useless gifts. They come out of nowhere, from relatives I wouldn’t dream of asking for receipts. After all, they’re people I only see once every couple of years. To insult them would be cruel, maybe downright unchristian. But I can’t use the darn things, either. When will I wear a stocking cap with Rudolph’s horns sticking out the sides?
Through the maze of possibilities my thoughts twist on Christmas morn, my wife blissfully murmuring beside me.
Toss them and forget it, I tell myself. But I can’t, I won’t. If something can be purchased, surely it can be returned. These gifts are potentially exchangeable items, a form of currency, if you will.
I resolve to enter into that newest and most frightening of Christmas traditions. Like the running of the bulls in Pamplona, the annual Returning of the Gifts has its elements of danger and it, too, resembles a stampede.
Oh, sure, we gripe about the rude hustle and bustle of the malls during those frustrating shopping days before The Bearded One arrives, but we know the post-Santa urban warfare will be much more harrowing.
Long lines. Screaming kids. Frustrated, glaring parents. Few receipts. Occasionally short-tempered cashiers. Little courtesy. Less common sense. These are the hallmarks of this annual blood bath. It’s brutal.
I have to give credit to most stores, though. They do their best to be friendly and gracious as their holiday profit margins backslide. The big chains even establish post-Christmas return lines, schedule extra help and direct their employees to scan items with no receipts to determine whether they were, in fact, purchased there. We’re able to return, without too much trouble, most of the three-in-one screwdrivers, foot massagers and Christmas tree sweatshirts adorned with bells, bon bons and trinkets hanging every which way.
I know this and, adjusting my pillow, take some comfort.
There is a catch, however, and it gnaws at me like a lion on a gladiator’s femur. If I can’t find the store where an item was purchased, I’ll be stuck with it. Time and again, at store after store, cashiers will scan items and shake their heads sympathetically. “Sorry,” they’ll say, “we don’t carry those.” I’ll lower my head and mumble, “O.K., well, thanks anyway,” before trudging back into the ice-covered parking lot, determined to try at least one more store.
Yes, sometimes the return is as elusive as a Lutheran church lady guarding the secrets of her Jell-O Surprise. Where do they find these things, these long-lost and well-meaning uncles, aunts and elderly cousins? Perhaps the secret store’s address comes with an AARP membership.
I chuckle at that and begin to tell myself it’s the thought that counts, anyway, when it suddenly hits me. I’ve been stuck with that most sticky and nonreturnable Noel curse of all, The Christmas CD. You know what I’m talking about. These nasty things have titles like, “Anne Murray’s Most -Loved Christmas Hits” or “Christmas with The Stars.”
I roll over, fluff my pillow again, count leaping reindeer into the hundreds. Finally, in desperation, I slip on my Discman headphones and am soon fast asleep. Croon on, Ms. Murray, croon on.